Dark short story competition - Runner Up

Deborah Hugill

Runner Up
Dark short story competition


Deborah Hugill is a writer from North Yorkshire. As well as writing short stories, she is a published playwright and has won several awards at local drama festivals. She won the Writers’ Weekend short story competition in 2021 and has come second in two Writing Magazine competitions and been shortlisted on a number of occasions.


Shadowman By Deborah Hugill

Her face in the mirror looks back at her, its expression tentative. She’s not sure how to feel today, if it even matters what she feels. She tries a smile and the lips of her mirror-self turn up. But the smile doesn’t reach its eyes. Perhaps the woman in the mirror knows something she doesn’t.
She applies lipstick, feeling the deceptive comfort of a familiar task, and runs her tongue over her teeth. It’s a good idea to look her best today. The best she can.
She is about to turn away for her hairbrush when a movement in the mirror snags the corner of her eye. Is somebody there? She looks around the bedroom, her heartbeat suddenly rapid. But who would be here in her little sanctuary? No-one. There’s no-one. It must have been a trick of the light, a shadow cast by the branches of the ash tree tapping against the window. Or something to do with the snow falling outside, scattering the white beam of the sky.
She touches her hair, mesmerised for a moment by the sleek feel of it, the glossiness. It’s definitely her best feature. She’s always known that, always been proud of its thickness, its luxuriance. In many ways, it’s defined her. Even now, there is no grey threaded through it. She smooths it with the brush, pleased with the effect, the way it frames her face. She couldn’t bear…
And there it is again. A flicker in the corner of the mirror. She could swear it’s a shadow, but not of tree branches. It’s momentary, a heartbeat, but she has the impression of a dark figure, crouching in the corner of the room. Biding its time.
She is up and out of the bedroom, her steps determined. There’s no-one there. Nothing. All she needs to do is focus, to avoid being diverted down the side streets of her imagination. She must focus on now, the reassuring ordinariness of the day. How can there be someone lurking in the corner of her room? Perhaps at four in the morning she might, temporarily, give in to a frightened belief in such a thing. But not now, not in the bright, reflected light of a winter morning.
She slides her feet into her boots, fur lined against the cold, and grabs her coat and bag. It feels good to be moving, to be powerful and in control. No imaginary figure is going to daunt her. She’s strong. Yes, that’s right – she’s strong and independent and no-one…She falters, catching sight of herself reflected in the front door glass. Is that someone looking over her shoulder? It can’t have been a face; it was too undefined, hazy. And anyway, there isn’t anyone there. There is only her. But, again, she has a strong impression of a presence. Impossible to pin down, only glimpsed obliquely, but there. Always there.
She pulls on her coat, hefts her bag across her shoulder and steps out into the white world, pulling the front door firmly shut behind her. If there is someone there, then he can stay in the house. He can squat in the darkness of the empty rooms and feel the walls confining him. She is locking him in. Leaving him behind.
The snow is still falling - very gently - and the hushed softness of the street lifts her mood. Yes, it’s cold, but it’s also bright and white and clean. The thick crust of snow on the hedges as she walks down to the bus stop is
pristine, beautiful. Like cream on a trifle. No dark marks. No shadows. Today is going to be a good day. A clean white day.
She smiles at the postman as he passes her and marvels that he is still wearing shorts, even in this weather. He looks hardy and hearty, as if nothing could knock him. Perhaps it is something to do with being outdoors all the time; perhaps he has been honed by the constant exercise and fresh air. She should walk more, eat more healthily, drink less. Stop smoking – that especially. She will; of course, she will - no problem. Sometimes that’s all you need to make you feel better, to set yourself straight. A healthier lifestyle. That’s all she needs. But first she just has to get through today.
It’s further than she thought to the bus stop, but the walk will do her good. It is satisfying that, having decided to take more exercise, she is now doing so. A feeling of virtuousness pervades her. It’s a shame this isn’t her normal route; she doesn’t normally take the number 27. She’s not usually going in this direction; on any other weekday she’d be going to work and that’s the number 40 which goes from virtually outside her house. She thinks of the office, her seat in the corner empty, her coffee mug congealing on the desk by her keyboard. Will anyone wonder where she is today? Will she tell them? She breathes in deeply, the cold air bracing her. No, there will be no need.
And then she hears him. It seems she’s begun to think of him as male. The shadowman, somehow escaped from the house, has followed her through the snowy streets and is right behind her. But shadows are silent, aren’t they? She can hear his footsteps as he stalks through the snow; she
can hear his heavy breath now too and feel it, hot on her shoulder. Why is he following her? Who is he? What does he want?
She increases her pace, fearing to look round. Does she know him? Is it someone she would recognise? Perhaps she should confront him, stop and turn and look him in the eye. But she’s not brave enough. She knows that, deep down, knows it despite telling herself she’s strong, that she can handle him. She’s not strong - not strong enough anyway. That’s why she tried to shut him in the house, why she now feels like running.
There’s the bus stop at last, and – thank God – a bus, her bus, is drawing up. She lets out a shuddering breath. Even if he follows her onto the bus, he won’t be able to do anything in the middle of all those other people. And what does she think he’ll do, given the chance? She shivers. Nothing good, she’s sure.
She climbs onto the bus and thrusts her money at the driver, a sob escaping her as she senses the figure still close behind.
‘Are you alright, love?’ The driver eyes her with concern.
‘This man.’ She jerks a thumb over her shoulder. ‘He’s following me. Please. Can you…’
‘There’s no-one there, love.’ His expression has changed, more hesitant now. She steels herself and looks around. He’s right. There is no-one. Just the falling snow. She tries to smile. ‘He must have gone. I must have lost him.’
The driver nods, unconvinced. ‘Good for you, love’.
She takes her seat, her heart thundering in her chest. She knows she hasn’t lost him, that he is somewhere on this bus. Somewhere behind her, just
out of sight. Why is this happening? On today of all days, when she needs to stay focussed, to keep on an even keel. Her fear slowly smoulders into anger. How dare he do this? How dare he? And why choose her? It’s so unfair; she’s done nothing to deserve this, nothing to provoke him. Well, ok, she’s not a saint. Life is for living, isn’t it? She likes to go out, enjoy herself. What’s wrong with that? So what if she likes a drink, the odd ciggie? He clearly thinks that because she’s not a nun that gives him the right to stalk her, the bastard. What does he think women should do? Stay at home and knit socks? He has no right to scare her like this, lurking behind her in the shadows, following her, hiding in her own home, for God’s sake. He means her harm, of that she’s sure.
She gets off the bus and walks wearily towards her destination, her earlier optimistic mood turned, like the snow, to slush. She feels a heavy drag in her chest and tries to talk herself round. She mustn’t let him get to her; she has to stay positive. Otherwise, he’s won and she can’t let that happen. That’s not what you do is it? You don’t submit; you fight.
She wants a ciggie; she really wants a ciggie.. But she knows she can’t have one. She’s going to have to deal with her pursuer without any of her usual props.
As she reaches the large glass doors they slide open to admit her and she sees him again, behind her, close to her shoulder, a fleeting glimpse before the movement of the doors blurs him. She sets her mouth into a stubborn line and follows the corridor until she finds the room she remembers from the last time she was here. Like the day, it was clean and white once, but is now a little grubby round the edges. It is small and anonymous with little to
distinguish it from many other rooms in this building, but she remembers it. Why wouldn’t she?
A man greets her and asks her to take a seat. His manner is difficult to read but he is polite, kind even. She wonders if he can see the shadowman who is standing behind her, who has now placed a hand on her shoulder pinning her to the chair. She thinks he probably can. She thinks he probably sees him often in this room, a dark unwelcome presence.
He looks her in the eye. The hand on her shoulder grips more tightly.
‘I’m sorry, Lindsey. It’s bad news. The test results confirm that you have cancer.’
She sees herself reflected in the glass of the cabinet behind him and, as she watches, the dark figure draws closer, its face suddenly defined and gleeful. She recognises him now, of course.
He smiles and wraps himself around her, enveloping her tightly like a shroud.


Judges Comments

Shadowman, the runner up in WM's Dark short story competition, is a masterclass in personification.

Throughout the skilful, atmospheric first-person narrative, the narrator is aware of – haunted by – a foreboding presence. As the story's title ominously suggests, it does more than follow her – it shadows her.

As the story progresses, the narrator's fraught sense that she's accompanied by this shadow becomes increasingly pervasive, and unsettling. It reads like a ghost story, as its author Deborah Hugill deliberately employs language and style associated with supernatural fiction. When we learn, as the narrator is given her diagnosis, what the real nature of this shadow is, we realise that the sense of doom that has been conjured is to do with her illness, and that the 'Shadowman' of the title is the personification not just of her fears but of the cancer that - the brilliant, devasting ending makes clear - will be terminal.